The 2020 Presidential Election represents a new era in the breakdown of American Democracy. Although Joe Biden won the presidency, in many states he won by a rather slim margin contrary to what many expected. Combined with the fact that the incumbent president, Donald Trump continued to promote groundless claims of widespread voter fraud, it is no wonder why in the aftermath of the election, many states are introducing new legislation dealing with the ways people vote in elections. In fact, according to the Brennan Center, “legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year”. I suggest that these restrictive bills, if passed, would undermine the very fabric of American Democracy by limiting access to voting for all citizens.
Changing how people are able to vote has always been a source of contention in American politics, since it has the ability to subtly but significantly influence which groups turnout to vote. Thus, all new legislation that will affect how people can vote must be carefully reviewed, since a piece of legislation can seem innocuous on paper yet still disenfranchise certain groups. As America’s electorate becomes more diverse, the GOP is going to have a more difficult time winning elections since the majority of their supporters are White. GOP lawmakers are all too aware of this, which is why, under the guise of election security, they are working to disenfranchise low-income voters, who also tend to be individuals of color.
One such bill that introduces such impediments to voting is Arizona’s House Bill 2369, introduced in January 2021. The bill proposes that all voters “shall make and sign affidavit in front of a notary public” in order to make the ballot valid. 80 percent of voters in Arizona cast their ballots by mail or by dropping them off in secure boxes. The proposed requirement would force Arizonans to notarize their ballots, which can cost up to 10 dollars. Even a relatively small fee like this would nevertheless place a price on voting. Additionally, Arizona saw a decrease of more than 30,000 notaries between 2012-2017. This decline in notaries would consequently increase the average distance that voters would have to travel in order to get their ballots notarized. The longer travel to access a notary would in turn increase transportation costs. Thus,, for voters who don’t own cars this notarization requirement would pose a significant barrier to voting . In this way, the notarization requirement would pose an increased burden on those of lower socioeconomic standing relative to those with higher socioeconomic standing. This increased burden can translate into lower voter turnout, which can be the deciding factor in historically contested states like Arizona. House Bill 2369 and similar laws posed by Republican lawmakers are clearly undermining democracy, ironically by utilizing the very mechanisms that make democracy possible . This puts Democrats in a difficult position in their attempts to preserve democracy. They must come up with a satisfactory answer to a pressing question: How does one party effectively neutralize threats to democracy without taking undemocratic measures?
Scholars Levitsky and Ziblatt offer some insight into this topic. In their book, “How Democracies Die”, they write that mutual toleration for one’s political adversary is paramount to the continuation of democracy. As soon as political rivals start to view each other as threats to democracy, they are implicitly stating that the other group no longer has a right to govern. If the democrats assume this about their opponents across the aisle, it would imply that they believe that republicans no longer have a right to govern. However, consolidating political power into one group is inherently undemocratic. Thus, keeping the democratic requirement of mutual toleration in mind, I have the following suggestions.
Firstly, Democrats must make the distinction that the policies that Republicans are advancing hinders democracy, but not directly accuse them of being undemocratic. Separating the issue of democratic erosion from partisan policies is essential to preserving the norm of mutual toleration. It would be easy to accuse democrats of facetiously trying to gain the electoral advantage by hindering Republican policy. This is why Democrats must make a concerted effort to reach out to Republican lawmakers at the federal level and pass a bipartisan bill protecting voting methods (voting by mail and early voting). Even though the Democrats could potentially pass such a bill without republican support passing it with bipartisan support would make it unlikely for new laws to be made in the future undoing progress. Of course, if such efforts are unsuccessful then they must pass the legislation on their own.
Congress has the duty to supervise the manner in which federal elections are held, which allows them to pass legislation that applies to state voting requirements. This power was exercised in the passage of the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act and its following iterations helped to undo many discriminatory practices in the United States when it came to exercising the right to vote. However, in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, significantly weakening this legislation. This is why new legislation needs to be passed immediately to safeguard democracy. One such amendment to the Voting Rights Act is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which would look more critically at requirements for voting. According to the bill, any changes in documentation or qualifications to vote would first be subject to preclearance by the federal government before its implementation. This preclearance would allow an independent committee to evaluate the impact that this additional documentation would have on the electorate. This extra step would greatly diminish the passage of undemocratic voting legislation by state officials. Another piece of legislation that has been proposed is the For the People Act of 2021 which is a direct response to many of the modern challenges that undemocratic legislation is posing to democracy. Within the Act, in Section. 307: Promoting ability of Voters to Vote By mail, it clearly states that “A State may not require notarization or witness signature or other formal authentication (other than voter attestation) as a condition of obtaining or casting an absentee ballot.” If the act were to be passed this would essentially invalidate the law being proposed in Arizona and other laws like it. Considering the fact that democrats currently hold the majority in both the house and the senate, they have the power to push through this piece of legislation without even having to reconcile themselves with their peers across the aisle. To dawdle on this matter is not an option, especially because they only narrowly won majority control of congress. They need to act on this while they have the ability to do so.